This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on March 11, 2012. To listen to the audio of this sermon, just click on this link – Lent 3,2012.
KNOWING THE STORY BY HEART
On this third Sunday in Lent, as we confess our failure to live by God’s directions, we read of an incident that tells us something important about Scripture and something even more important about Jesus.
[introduction…story about storytellers….]
Make God’s Word the Story You Live By We live by stories.
We tell ourselves stories about our lives and about the world: “This is where I’m headed,” “This is why God owes me something good,” “This is why everything is a mess right now.” These stories determine what we’ll fear, what we’ll be excited about, what we’ll hope for, what we’ll spend our money on, what we’ll pray for, what we’ll serve, whose opinions we will value. You may not think you’ve got a story, but you do, and it’s as important as air and food.
In these verses from Matthew, after Jesus has been praying & fasting for 40 days to begin his public mission, the Tempter urges Jesus to act selfishly, based on a particular story about how the world works. He tempts Jesus to meet his need (hunger) in an instant, spectacular way, instead of trusting God’s Spirit who has brought him into the wilderness for this intense time of fasting, prayer, and preparation. This temptation relies on a particular story: “God doesn’t have your good in mind, and doesn’t really know how to help you out here, but you have these powers; so use them to provide for yourself (instead of wasting them on others).”
Jesus responds that “people do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God’s mouth,” (a quotation from Deuteronomy 8, where God provided physical food and spiritual guidance for his people). This sounds good, but what does it mean? It means that God’s Word is meant to orient our perspective—what we want, what we hope and fear, what we love.
Jesus is saying that God’s Word–the true story of a loving, generous, holy God patiently restoring a broken world and rescuing ruined lives–is to be the story that guides our days.
**This statement doesn’t mean that food & physical needs aren’t important. It doesn’t say, “people don’t live by bread at all,” but “people don’t live by bread alone.” Jesus also tells us to pray, “give us today our daily bread,” and tells us that “your heavenly Father knows that you need these things [food and shelter and clothing].”
**This is also not about a magical Bible that tells us how to lose weight, or who will win the next Middle Eastern war, or how to retire wealthy. This is about the questions that occupy so much of our inner life and so much of our energy: Will we be provided for? What does love look like? What should we expect from life? What should we be passionate about? Who’s in charge? God’s true story is meant to orient our thinking & behavior by answering these questions.
What words do we live by? In what ways are we relying on everything but God’s word? Do we rely on our bank statements? On the words of other people who affirm or belittle us? On our own way of spinning stories so that we look good and others look bad? By our productivity for that day? Do we live by the wisdom of people who tell us what the world is “really” like? Make a habit of listening to God’s Word and seeing what story he tells about you and the world, and what habits and desires he wants to cultivate in you.
Make Scripture a Primary Weapon to Fight Temptation Jesus uses verses from Deuteronomy three times in this passage, to argue against the lies that the Tempter tells. He has immersed himself in the Hebrew Scriptures and in his people’s worship, so that God’s Word is in his mind when he needs it. This should serve as an example for all of us who follow him.
Keeping brief passages of Scripture in our minds as prayers and as reminders of the truth is an ancient spiritual practice that millions of Christians have used to resist temptation.
In her book Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, Lauren Winner tells of being helped in times of intense anxiety by memorizing & praying Psalm 70:1: “O God, hurry to save me; come quickly, Lord, to help me!” She quotes a 4th-century Christian writer who recommends this prayer against all kinds of temptations, because it admits our weakness and our need for God, reminds us of his power to help, and calls on him to come rescue us (in that way, it’s a lot like the end of the Lord’s Prayer: “deliver us from evil!”). We should add such tools to our spiritual toolbox.
But Remember: Scripture isn’t magic. Jesus’ opponents throughout his career, especially the Pharisees, studied the same Scriptures as he did, but missed the point of them. (Also notice in today’s passage, that the devil uses scripture to tempt Jesus and to lie about God!) As Jesus reminds his opponents in John 5:39-40 and Matthew 9:13…if we don’t see God’s grace revealed in Jesus as the point of the whole Bible, then scripture will be used with the wrong attitude or with utter powerlessness. It is best used when Christ is seen as its focus (John 5:39-40; Luke 24:25-27) and even then it isn’t easy!
Jesus, Not Scripture, is Your Victory Though God’s word should shape our desires and priorities, we often fail to live by it…this Sunday in Lent is a time to acknowledge that failure. Failure can lead us to despair or cynicism: what’s the point of trying to listen to the wisdom of the Bible when there’s a pretty good chance we won’t succeed in living it?
But there is even better news than the news that God has given us the Bible to fight temptation. He has defeated temptation for us! This story, Matthew 4, isn’t primarily saying, “Here are some good ways to resist temptation.” Its main point is that Jesus is defeating the Tempter and temptation where everyone else has failed. Israel failed in its own time of wilderness testing; we fail in our times of temptation; but Jesus succeeded and, again and again throughout his ministry, broke the power of the devil. In Jesus, the powers who think they run this world were humiliated, and we were freed from having to obey them. In Christ, we are now able to say “No” to temptation.
Our defeats, our failures, can sometimes seem ultimate, final. They seem to prove that we should give up. But if we rely on Jesus who has beaten all this, we are given the freedom and strength to fight temptation, and compassionate forgiveness when we fail to do so. This morning, we should renew our dedication to be people of God’s Word, but only because we are loved, forgiven, and held by Christ who won his lonely battle in the wilderness.